HOLLYWOOD — Merle Haggard graduated from being an opening act decades ago, but he gladly stepped into the role once again Monday night (March 21) for a sold-out, five-night stand with Bob Dylan.
“It’s been so long since I’ve opened a show, I don’t know if I remember how,” Haggard joked to the crowd before proving himself wrong. Kicking off his 50-minute set with the apropos “Big City” (which he co-wrote outside a Los Angeles recording studio), the country legend made himself right at home in Hollywood Boulevard’s historic Pantages Theater.
Instead of leaning on material from his new standards album, Unforgettable, he played only the title track. He filled the rest of his abbreviated show with classic Haggard hits “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
True to his usual onstage style, Haggard joked frequently with the audience and poked fun at his longtime band, the Strangers, and himself for a missed note or lyric. After flubbing the first verse of “Okie From Muskogee,” Haggard stopped mid-song and told the crowd he had just had a “senior moment.” He also blamed his memory lapse on a favorite pastime he once shared with friend Willie Nelson.
“Me and Willie can’t remember anything,” Haggard said with a wink. “But we love everybody.”
Haggard also strayed into political territory, changing a lyric of “That’s the Way Love Goes” to “don’t worry about what George Bush says, just keep your mind on Bob Dylan.” He closed the show with “That’s the News,” a song about the war in Iraq that stirred up a bit of controversy when it was released on his 2003 album Haggard Like Never Before.
Unlike Haggard, headliner Dylan kept the stage banter to a bare minimum, muttering only a “thanks, friends” toward the end of his nearly two-hour show. He also paid homage to his country roots, taking the stage in a black cowboy hat, boots and studded pants that would make Marty Stuart jealous. Dylan stayed behind an upright piano during the whole concert but also picked up the harmonica for several tunes. His tight six-piece band at various times featured two fiddles, a banjo and steel guitar.
Dylan still attracts a diverse and loyal following. Aging hipsters reliving the glory years were grooving right along with young hipsters trying to catch a bit of a legend before he’s gone. Dylan didn’t disappoint, offering up classic tunes like “Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Just Like a Woman” and “All Along the Watchtower” in all his raspy-voiced, indecipherable glory.
Although the Dylan-Haggard pairing may seem strange to some, it was actually a very natural combo. Both men, now in their 60s, are icons, and both seem to still truly enjoy being onstage.
Singer-songwriter Amos Lee is the third act on the bill for the Dylan-Haggard tour.